Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Oca: Six Degrees of Separation

It occurred to me the other day, as I evicted yet another bunch of volunteer ocas from their chosen homes, that I've been doing this for a few years now. In fact the 2014 seedlings are the sixth generation descendants of the original oca varieties that I started with. For those who love this sort of thing, the six degrees of separation theory posits that we are all connected with one another by a chain of, at most, six intermediaries; it's an intriguing idea, the likelihood of which must surely be increasing as the internet's hyphae ramify ever further across the globe. Oh and it was also a passably good film.

Here are my ocas - the great, great, great, great grandchildren of the original varieties. They're still going strong, or at least they appear to be if the above image is to be believed.  So what effect has being Generation Six had on my charges?

But before all that, an extensive caveat. I'd like to be able to say that I've made a significant breakthrough in breeding a ravishingly beautiful, delicious, dayneutral oca. Maybe I have, but due to conflicting pressures and responsibilities, I haven't been been able to devote anything like enough time to the methodical recording of tuber yields. Something or other has got in the way every time - frost damage, voles, vine weevils, midnight ambulance rides to hospital - that kind of thing. That and the more humdrum exigencies of earning money.

And when I say breed, I really mean stand and stare at the bees and hoverflies transferring pollen as they flit from flower to flower - very relaxing. Back in the early days, I rushed to hand pollinate and bag flowers individually and I think I even went to the trouble of recording parentage, but I now no longer have time or the inclination for such niceties. If you want to look at someone who's far more methodical than me, check out Bill's blog.

Proper breeders are supposed to apply some sort of directional selection pressure to their charges. I've done very little of this, I must confess. There are two reasons: firstly I started with only a few clones and I thought it wise to conserve as much variation as possible before culling ruthlessly.
Secondly, I'm a softie at heart and don't like to institute a reign of terror on my charges - I'm not Ivan the Terrible, I'm Rhizowen the lily-livered.

So as a bystander to oca's unfolding evolution, what conclusions can I actually draw? Here are a few, off the top of my head:
  • Oca seedlings are variable - leaf, stem, and tuber colour, pubescence, height, you name it, it varies.  
  • Oca seedlings generally flower much more readily than commercially available varieties.
  • There are many more of the short and mid-styled varieties than long styled ones.
  • Oca seeds germinate fairly easily and grow quite fast; they can go from seed to seed outside in one season here in Cornwall.
  • Tubers from oca seedlings are perfectly edible and not always tiny, knobbly and misshapen.
  • Oca pods require careful management - when they pop, those seeds don't stop.
  • Corollary of the above - oca volunteers will appear where you probably don't want them.
  • Voles and other rodents love to eat oca tubers.
  • Unlike the voles, I hate harvesting oca tubers in the late autumn when our soil is cold, sticky and squelchy. 

Bearing in mind that I started with so few varieties, the overriding question is this:
have I been blissfully - inadvertently - purging oca's genetic load, thus producing an oca master race, or merely subjecting the unfortunate plant to the perils of inbreeding, spawning a clutch of web-fingered banjo players?  Deliverance from these sorts of questions at three o'clock in the morning would be very welcome.

And I know it's bad form to use the c word so early in the year, but could I have the following for Christmas, please:

A bunch of ten or more people, ocaphiles to the hilt, with whom to explore some of the possibilities of oca improvement. There are so many questions to be answered, so much more work to do.
Until such time as the above dream team materialises, I will ponder and ruminate. So here's my final question, which neither Bible scholars nor oca breeders have yet been able to answer definitively: will the mistakes of the "breeder" be visited unto the seventh generation? I'll let you know - next year.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Mauka: Three Cheers for The Marvel of Peru

Mauka Man Mirabilis expansa
Mauka Man, hero.
We've eaten Mauka Man, the root I harvested a while ago. It had to happen; I'm glad it happened. According to Lost Crops of The Incas, mauka (Mirabilis expansa) is usually allowed to sit in the sun for a while before consumption. Previously I've only ever eaten it straight out of the ground. While tasty, there is usually a slight residual irritation at the back of the throat; this stops the experience from being the sensual delight it could be.

Half the battle with novel foods is figuring out how to prepare them. As we normally harvest root crops in the winter, sitting roots out in grey, wan light isn't likely to effect much positive change. Sunshine in May (when we get it) is much more intense. Clearing out the mauka bed in the spring has therefore given me the ideal opportunity to follow the preparation method favoured in mauka's Andean homeland. Not that I planned it that way. Let's just call it a fortuitous failure.

Mauka root (Mirabilis expansa)
400g of prime mauka flesh
Dismembering and preparing the poor fellow wasn't easy as the roots were twisted and as I understand it, mauka is always eaten peeled. While I was laboriously flaying the severed limbs, I noticed that beneath the skin, there was a reddish hue - a reaction to all that intense Cornish sunshine no doubt. More surprising still, was the observation that, like some Andean zombie, this root was undead: I could see some tiny adventitious shoots breaking forth on the cut surface. My previous experience indicates that pieces like this can be replanted and will go on to develop into new plants. Useful.
Pink flesh Mauka root (Mirabilis expansa)
Pink below the skin

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) adventitious buds
Not dead yet - adventitious bud appearing
Despite the efforts I was forced to expend in the peeling process, the three year old root flesh was, generally speaking, surprisingly free of fibres and woodiness, at least in its raw state. As per usual, I chopped the flesh into chunks and deposited the whole lot in a pan of water.

As I was boiling the chunks, I remembered something from Lost Crops of the Incas about the cooking water being used as a drink. After I'd fished out the cooked pieces, I allowed the cloudy liquid to cool. I tried it (gingerly at first) and can reveal to the world that this beverage is nothing like potato water in terms of palatability. Contrary to my expectations, it was sweet and pleasant, with none of the gritty starchiness I had expected. It seems that this is a nice drink in its own right and could probably be fermented into something interesting too. Or maybe the liquid could be used as a base for soups. Could quaffing mauka-ade become some sort of liquid sacrament to the ritual of mauka flesh preparation? Stick in a few songs and a bit of inebriation and Mauka Man would make a  perfect successor to John Barleycorn.

Mauka Meal (Mirabilis expansa)
Tasty enough, but less than the sum of its parts

I hastily cooked some vegetables from the rack and plonked the mauka chunks on top.  To be honest, the firm texture of the mauka did not combine particularly well with the vegetable mush I created, although it was all very palatable. Slightly chastened, I kept some of the cooked mauka chunks back and the following  evening I fried them quickly with a little bit of oil, some herbs from the garden and a pinch of salt.

As we took in a DVD (Hunger Games, as it happens) and ate our mauka chunks, I rather lost concentration on the film; savouring the delightful finger food that pan-fried mauka proved to be was a major distraction. Still, any bow-toting heroine who is named after Sagittaria latifolia gets my approval by default.

To one whose palate has been corrupted by a lifelong diet of Angel Delight, pot noodles and fish fingers, I consider this to be excellent fare. In fact, of all the Lost Crops roots I have tried, this is my favourite. With its firm flesh and sweet taste, it is a pleasure to chew. I bet it would make great chips. If my rudimentary preparation methods are anything to go by, cannier cooks than I will easily come up with numerous ingenious ways to incorporate it into the western diet.

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) drink mauka-ade
A glass of mauka-ade proved unexpectedly potable
So Mauka Man got eaten. It had to happen and I'm very glad it did.  And I'm happy to raise a glass of mauka-ade to salute his passing. Three cheers: hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Talet Will Out

Spring is sprung, Amphicarpaea style
After last year's exceptionally cold spring, this time around we're experiencing something much less chilly. This relative balminess was confirmed a while ago when I noticed that the midge season had begun. Oh joy. And then what weather forecasters describe as "unusually powerful winds for the time of year" started up and have been battering us for days. It's kept the midges at bay, but I can't help feeling pangs of sadness when I see radiant young beech leaves torn from their twigs and lying in dishevelled drifts by the edges of the lanes. Like the midges and the gales, the talets (Amphicarpaea bracteata) are also in the ascendancy. Or at least they're up and out of the ground. No matter the weather, it's a cause for celebration in this household.

I have several varieties of this noble amphicarpic bean and it occurs to me that I ought to make an attempt to compare them in something resembling a systematic way.  I already know that some die back more rapidly than others; what I've never got around to doing is actually investigating their relative productivity. Until now.

Because of the activities of the voles, I've taken to growing them in pots in the back yard. I'm told that voles in North America cache the underground beans for hard times. Our voles seem to be more of the live-fast-die-young persuasion, because they have managed to eat every single one I have planted over the last few years; they make no more attempt to put provisions aside for the winter than Aesop's grasshopper did. Not that starvation seems to threaten their population - they usually transfer their attentions to the oca crop to tide them over.

Yabumame seedlings
Enough of the voles and their villainy. When I say several varieties, I actually mean six: there's my first one, whose origins now escape me; a variety from Frank van Keirsbilck in Belgium; 'Saratoga Battlefield'; 'Gardens North' and the yabumame  from Hokkaido (Amphicarpaea bracteata subsp. edgeworthii) which Paolo Gaiardelli very generously gave to me.

If anything, 'Gardens North' seems a little small and rather late; is this because I gave the best specimens away to various people earlier in the year or just an adaptation to its chilly birthplace in Ontario? And I'm a little short of 'Saratoga Battlefield' which I collected myself in 2008. Maybe the shame of the British defeat at that location has seriously inhibited its growth, but I've only managed to get two underground beans from this
Amphicarpaea 'Nova Scotia' safe in a greenhouse
variety to date. To complete the set for this year, I have a variety from Nova Scotia, kindly donated by Edward MacDonell, a fellow amphicarpaphile from said Canadian province. These have been started from the much smaller aerial seeds, so I'm fast-tracking them under glass.

As to experimental design - well, apart from the Nova Scotian accession, they're in the same growing medium, same size pots, with between two and six replicates of each variety. That's about as sophisticated as my experiments ever get. Still, if I keep an eye on the plants, their flowering times and (breaking the habits of a lifetime) actually weigh the resultant crop, I might learn something about their relative merits; I could use that information to inform any breeding programme I susbequently develop. Talks about talks, I know, but one has to start somewhere.

Setting up the experiment
I could get smug about mounting the biggest talet grow-out ever seen in Cornwall; the truth is, however, that this probably represents a tiny fraction of the potential Amphicarpaea germplasm out there: A. bracteata is widely distributed in North America. I'd like to try the Mexican variety, the original 'talet', for starters and then there's the intriguing prospect of A. africana from montane areas of Central Africa. I know absolutely nothing about that species. Is it even edible? And let's not forget yabumame, which must exist in various forms in Korea and China, as well as in Japan.

While I'm waiting for the universe to slake my insatiable desire for additional Amphicarpaea varieties, you might like to consider this: there's good evidence that A. bracteata is actually composed of two or more cryptic species. This means that there are reproductively isolated, morphologically dissimilar lineages, which although superficially resembling each other, are actually distinguishable to the expert eye; I can see myself spending more time I don't have mastering the intricacies of this arcane art. Someone has to, I suppose. And could it be that 'Saratoga Battlefield' is one of the less competitive lineages described here? Nothing is as it seems in the complicated world of Amphicarpaea breeding.

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